How virtual reality is shaping the new home of Washington state’s oldest museum

Burke Museum
An artist’s rendering of the new Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle. ( Image)

A key concept for the new Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington, currently under construction in Seattle, is “See Through the Burke.” It’s part of an effort to make labs and artifacts that are hidden from public view in the current museum more visible to visitors in the new one.

But before the new Burke opens in June 2019, scientists and staff members are already seeing inside the project, thanks to the use of virtual reality.

Project architect Olson Kundig and builder/developer Skanska used HTC Vive headsets to walk UW biologists through the spaces where they will work so that they could see, in 3D, where a cabinet or sink might land or how high a countertop could be. It’s part of an ongoing trend in the construction industry to give clients access to much more than paper drawings to help them visualize future working or living spaces.

“When we originally started contracting with the university, they wanted to take a more progressive approach on how they followed through on the design phase of the project as it leads into construction,” said Sam Stevens, a project manager with Skanska. “They’ve seen some value on their previous projects of using the BIM (building information modeling), the 3D model, but they really emphasized on this project that we take a leaner approach and really utilize BIM to coordinate virtually prior to getting out into the field and building the project.”

Burke Museum
Labs and artifacts inside the new Burke Museum will be visible alongside galleries and other displays. ( Image)

Stevens said key groups were starting to look at some of their spaces planned for the new Burke, and the biology department in particular determined that it was more space than they needed and offered to have it tweaked. So Skanska made adjustments to the model.

“We were able to utilize the VR technology to allow the biologists to come in and virtually walk through that space to confirm that the reconfiguration still worked for their needs,” Stevens said.

Burke Museum VR
Inside a construction trailer, VR users get a view inside the new Burke Museum at the University of Washington. From left: Skanska’s Ana Brainard, Burke biologist Jeff Bradley, Skanska project manager Sam Stevens, Burke biologist Adam Leachè, and UW project manager Eldon Tam. (Skanska Photo)

The technology allowed Skanska to get immediate confirmation that the new layout was suitable. At that point in the game, with a structure already up and some systems installed, a quick decision proved critical in avoiding costly delays.

The completely new stand-alone building replaces Washington state’s oldest museum, founded in 1885. It will be 113,000 square feet, 66 percent larger than the current facility on the northwest corner of the UW campus. Construction is 30 percent complete right now.

Mark King, a virtual design and construction manager for Skanska, said that as soon as the biologists were able to immerse themselves in the 3D model of the new Burke, they were “blown away” because the scale became so evident.

“The scientist was looking in drawers and cupboards and poking his head under fume hoods — it was really fun to see how they interacted so quickly with it,” King said. “In a matter or a minute or two they figured out the controls and how to maneuver around the model. One biologist said, ‘Oh, there’s that sink I asked for.’ He instantly recognized that and it was fun to watch because this is their work space.”

Burke Museum lab VR
A virtual view inside a Burke Museum lab. (Skanska Image)

And because it’s a working lab space that’s on view to museum guests, the scientists were able to virtually stand outside a window and see what students and visitors will see.

Eldon Tam, the project manager for the UW, said about 30 staff members will work in the building along with a countless number of students. He reiterated the fact that VR was a huge help for staff members who wanted to poke around two years before they go to work in the new building.

“It’s been particularly important for the labs, since the labs have such technically precise work, much like kitchens,” Tam said of allowing users to get a better sense of how to make spaces more ergonomic and as functionally efficient as possible.

Tam said the old Burke’s behind-the-scenes tours revealed that visitors were always amazed at the amount of work that went on away from the public eye, and that knowledge led the Burke to take the “bold step” to expose everything with its “museum inside out” philosophy.

“Natural history museums have been trying to open up the fossil prep areas for public view recently, but most of the time it’s been very targeted labs that are on display, and most of the labs are still behind the scenes,” Tam said. “The concept for this museum is we’re putting 90 percent of the labs on display, and the only reason why it’s not 100 percent is we just couldn’t physically fit all the labs along the visitor corridors.”

Just because cutting-edge technology is being used to help visualize how the new $99 million Burke will come together, don’t expect tech to overtake the museum when it comes to how visitors interact with the facility. The museum, like many that have the ability to update facilities and displays, will surely be adding the necessary infrastructure to allow for digital interfaces. But Skanska’s Stevens pointed out that the Burke has another objective when it comes to engaging with visitors.

“One of the things that they really want to stick to — because this is a natural history museum about Washington state’s history and some of the great artifacts — they want to get people out of their phones and really engaged with the actual pieces that are part of the museum.”

Learn more about the new Burke at the project website, which breaks down the budget and funding sources and also offers a view of construction progress through a timeline, videos and a webcam.